Evidence Based Policy Research Project (2022)

The November 2017 Symposium event convened by newDemocracy sought to challenge opinion leaders by asking them what practical testable improvements could be made to our democracy in order to improve public trust in how we make public decisions. It sought to move the discussion from complaints about problems to potential solutions. This project is one of the leading ideas which emerged from this two-day event.

Many participants – spanning company directors, the advocacy sector, journalists and even former MPs – lamented that “evidence-based policymaking” had become an empty phrase that everyone claimed to pursue but no one knew how to quantify. A proposal was championed by former Secretary of the NSW Treasury, Percy Allan, to draw on work from 2012 by Prof. Ken Wiltshire from the University of Queensland in work originally produced for the Institute of Public Administration Australia (IPAA) which did attempt to set forth such a standard.

For the fifth year, independent research undertaken by two philosophically opposed Right and Left think tanks finds that the way Australian federal and state governments make important decisions involving legislation falls short of basic evidence and consultation-based standards.

This is despite each government having a regulatory impact and cost/benefit analysis guidelines that demand rigorous policy analysis before important decisions are made.

Averaging the two think tanks’ total scores out of a possible 10.0 for each of the twenty federal and state government laws reviewed shows that five received solid scores (between 7.0 and 9.5) while six got unacceptable scores (below 5.0). The remaining nine received mediocre scores (between 5.0 and 6.5).

The three laws that most approximated a good policy-making process were the Queensland Housing Legislation Amendment Act (9.5/10.0), the NSW Mandatory Disease Testing Act (9.5/10.0) and the Federal Fair Work Amendment Act (9.0/10.0).

The ones that rated lowest were the Federal Electoral Legislation Amendment Act (2.0/10.0), the NSW Roads and Crimes Legislation Amendment Act (3.0/10.0), and the Federal Customs/Excise Tariff Amendment Act (4.0/10.0).

Evidence-based policymaking is a phrase everyone likes to use with no agreed standard of what it actually is. If we can have parties agree on some basic standards in the policy process, then we are one step closer to being able to make more widely trusted decisions at all levels of government.

A positive development is that the NSW Legislative Council following three years of persistent representations by the EBP Research Project unanimously agreed in May 2022 to a sessional order that all NSW government bills must answer six basic questions, which are at the core of our evaluation criteria:

• Need: Why is the policy needed based on factual evidence and stakeholder input?
• Objectives: What is the policy’s objective couched in terms of the public interest?
• Options: What alternative policies/ mechanisms were considered in advance of the bill?
• Analysis: What were the pros/cons and benefits/costs of each option considered?
• Pathway: What are timetable and steps for the policy’s rollout and who will administer it? • Consultation: Were the views of affected stakeholders sought and considered?

The NSW Premier subsequently issued a directive for all state agencies to comply with the new procedural order, which they have done. Our monitoring of the standard of the 34 SPIs tabled with bills since June show that two thirds adequately answer most if not all six questions and that the quality of SPIs has improved with time. Further scope exists for improvement in their preparation in future.

The NSW initiative, which was made a permanent standing order in November, is the first time that a public policy framework for interrogating bills has been given legal force in Australia. It’s a big breakthrough in better governance that we hope other governments and parliaments emulate. Only by mandating and insisting on meaningful answers to the basic six steps in good policy making can parliaments genuinely hold governments to account on bills.


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